Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Norwegian role in Sri Lanka through the eyes of a foreign service officer




By Shamindra Ferdinando

Peaceful Intervention in intra-state conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process thoroughly examined the circumstances leading to Eelam War IV in 2006.

Foreign Service officer, Dr. Chanaka Talpahewa, dealt with a range of contentious issues, including the finalization of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in February, 2002, under controversial circumstances, the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in early August, 2005, as well as secret negotiations between the government and the LTTE meant to facilitate LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham’s evacuation from Sri Lanka.. Dr. Talpahewa discussed Norway’s pathetic failure in Sri Lanka due to multiple reasons.. The serving foreign service officer explained that the personal affinity, between the Norwegians and the LTTE leadership, had a significant impact on the peace process.

There is absolutely no doubt Peaceful Intervention in intra-state conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process addressed a long felt need to examine the disputed Norwegian role.

The war-winning Rajapaksa government neglected its responsibility to commission a comprehensive study, soon after the conclusion of the Vanni offensive, on the morning of May 19, 2009. Instead, the previous government squandered massive sums of taxpayers’ money on expensive US public relations firms to discourage the Obama administration from moving a resolution in Geneva. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) lacked the required mandate to conduct a comprehensive study, though some aspects of the Norwegian role were examined.

Dr. Talpahewa should be commended for his courageous no-holds-barred approach in examining an extremely sensitive issue. The author received access to those who had been involved in the Norwegian peace process, as well as a range of classified and confidential documents, hence a thorough examination of foreign intervention and a gamut of related issues. Dr. Talpahewa’s study should be made available in parliament as well as Sri Lankan diplomatic missions.

Dr. Talpahewa launched Peaceful Intervention in intra-state conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process in early 2015 during his brief tenure as Sri Lanka’s Acting HC in the UK.

The previous government had moved Dr. Talpahewa to London, from the Maldives, where he held the Deputy High Commissioner’s post in the wake of Dr. Chris Nonis resigning over the then Monitoring MP of the External Affairs Ministry, Sajin Vass Gunawardene, assaulting him in New York, in late September, 2014. Dr. Nonis reacted furiously to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s failure to take appropriate action against MP Gunewardene, a member of the then President’s personal’s entourage.

In addition to the Maldives, attorney-at-law Dr. Talpahewa had served Sri Lankan missions in New York and Turkey.

Dr. Talpahewa received an invitation to join the launch of former BBC correspondent Mark Salter’s To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, in late October, 2015, at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) of the London University School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Organizers invited Erik Solheim (former Norwegian Development Minster and the main figure in the Norwegian facilitation effort in Sri Lanka), Vidar Helgesen (former Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, now Minister for Europe), Suthaharan Nadaraj (ex-Advisor to LTTE theoretician and British national Anton Balasingham) and Dr Talpahewa as panelists at the book launch., However, Dr. Talpahewa, didn’t attend the event.

The Norwegian embassy, in London, held a reception. Salter has undertaken the challenging task on the request of Helgesen, another key player in Norway’s Sri Lanka team.

After having served the British High Commission, in Colombo, Balasingham received British nationality. The LTTE exploited Balasingham’s British nationality to its advantage. Dr. Talpahewa dealt expertly with the failed Norwegian facilitated secret negotiations between the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government and the LTTE to facilitate Balasingham leaving the country for treatment overseas. Having rejected President Kumaratunga’s bid to secure battlefield concessions in return for allowing Balasingham to leave safely, the LTTE smuggled Balasingham out on January 23, 1999. It would have been pertinent to examine the exploitation of Balasingham’s British nationality by the LTTE, even after the UK reluctantly prohibited the group. Dr. Talpahewa missed an opportunity to have a vital part of the LTTE strategy probed. In fact, none of those who had examined the foreign intervention here surprisingly failed to probe that aspect. Imagine a terrorist group proscribed by the US, EU, UK and India having a British theoretician.

Norway had absolutely no qualms about accommodating Balasingham in Norwegian medical facility in spite of his acknowledged involvement with a terrorist group, proscribed in India, for the assassination of one-time Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Unfortunately, those who had been at the helm never realized the Norwegian agenda. Those who had been involved in the Norwegian exercise are still trying to restore their image severely damaged due to the failed peace process.

As regards the Norwegian role, Dr. Talpahewa and Salter provided sharply contradictory opinion. Let me quote Dr. Talpahewa verbatim: "According to research findings, in facilitating the negotiations, Norway performed a role that exceeded facilitation....(Norwegian declaration) to withdraw from the third party role until the restoration of political stability subsequent to the taking over of three key ministries by the President. Interestingly, these tactics appeared rather selective, with Norway failing to use manipulative tactics to arrest the subsequent deterioration of the peace process due to the intransigence of the LTTE. The research findings also show that Norway did not, in many instances, use the leverage it had over the LTTE to ensure that the organization adhered to its undertakings."

Peaceful Intervention in intra-state conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process and To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka (both launched during 2015) should be compared with Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009, an official Norwegian study. Norway released the report, in late, 2011, over two years after the conclusion of the war, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Interestingly, the launch of To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka took place at the London University SOAS, which teamed up with Norway’s Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) to produce Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009.

By and large, Peaceful Intervention in intra-state conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process exposed shortcomings in the Norwegian-led project. It should certainly occupy the shelf of every student of politics, history and conflict resolution. It should also stimulate the intellectual appetite of those who wish to learn of the Norwegian intervention during this phase of contemporary history. On the basis named and unnamed sources, Dr. Talpahewa asserted that the peace process failed primarily due to the shortcomings on the part of the Norwegians.

Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009 revealed the Norwegian team, tasked with spearheading the peace project, reaching wrong conclusions in respect of some critically important matters at a crucial time of the conflict. Unfortunately, Dr. Talpahewa hadn’t examined the Norwegian report as well as Wiki Leaks cables pertaining to Sri Lanka. Had Dr. Talpahewa studied them, he would have been certainly benefited. The author could have used the Norwegian report and Wiki Leaks to confirm some of his arguments.

The Norwegian report dealt with an internal strategy session with the then Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stores, in May, 2007. The Norwegians clearly ignored the Sri Lankan military rapidly closing in on the remaining LTTE bases in the Eastern Province, the damaging split, in the LTTE, caused by Karuna Amman, as well as the Army opening up a new front, west of Vavuniya, threatening LTTE superiority in the Vanni. On the basis of reports/assessments made available by its diplomatic mission, in Colombo, as well as other sources, including a section of the media, the Norwegians believed the LTTE couldn’t be overwhelmed militarily under any circumstances. The relevant section from the CMI-SOAS report (page 63): "All observers think that this is a conflict that cannot be won by military means and most believe that the government cannot beat the LTTE militarily." Moreover, the group concludes: "International pressure does not seem to have any positive influence, but rather to contribute to locking the military strategies of the parties. Strategic thinking thus tends to hinge on the premise that at some point a new stalemate may emerge, either because the LTTE rolls back the front line (as it did several times in the past), or resorts to guerrilla style tactics to avert defeat. In hindsight the Norwegian team underestimates the Sri Lankan government’s strength, both militarily and politically. The team considers a wide range of likely and less likely scenarios, but (like most observers at that time), it does not reckon with the sequence of events that is to follow: a strong SLFP-led coalition and a military victory."

The then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had told the writer, on several occasions, during the war, that the LTTE could be defeated. The Gajaba Regiment veteran stressed that the LTTE would be defeated. Obviously, the Norwegians didn’t take Rajapaksa’s resolve seriously. The Norwegian also made crucial mistake in asserting that the LTTE waged war seeking solutions to ethnic and political problems. The Norwegian report (page 58) revealed the Norwegians meeting Defence Secretary Rajapaksa on April 6, 2006, to discuss the ground situation. "On April 6, 2006, Hanssen-Baur and Brattskar have a tense meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. In response to a question about whether the ethnic and political problems in Sri Lanka could be solved by military means, Gotabhaya answers, ‘yes.’ The meeting took place about three weeks before the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka at the army headquarters.

Canada-based veteran journalist Jeyaraj, in late Dec. 2008, predicted the LTTE rolling back the Army on the Vanni east front. Jeyaraj, who had been with The Island at the time this writer joined the editorial, as a trainee, in June, 1987, claimed that powerful LTTE battle group would inflict a massive defeat on the Army thereby reversing the government campaign. Within days, after Jeyaraj’s claim, Task Force I (58 Division) and 57 Division liberated Kilinochchi. Even after the Kilinochchi debacle and a series of battlefield defeats on the Vanni east front, the Norwegians believed in arranging an organized surrender of the LTTE. Regrettably, Dr. Talpahewa didn’t examine the US-backed Norwegian efforts to facilitate the surrender of top LTTE leaders as well as ordinary cadres. The author also ignored Norwegian failure to persuade the LTTE to release well over 200,000 civilians, held at gunpoint, in an area rapidly shrinking due to relentless ground operations. Perhaps, Dr. Talpahewa purposely left out certain issues.

A brief missive sent by war time Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo, Tore Hattrem, to the then National List MP and presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa revealed halfhearted Norwegian bid to secure the release of civilians held by the LTTE. The following is the text of the letter headlined Offer/proposal to the LTTE dated Feb. 16, 2009: "I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population now trapped in the LTTE controlled area has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far there has been regrettably no response from the LTTE and it doe not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree to this in the near future." Norway never pushed the influential Tamil Diaspora, in Norway, to pressure the LTTE leadership to give up its meaningless resistance. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, the world knows the ICRC believed the Army could have finished off the LTTE much faster if it didn’t take the civilian factor into consideration on the Vanni east front.

As Ambassador Hattrem predicted, the LTTE refused to release civilians in spite of repeated appeals. Interestingly, the Tamil National Alliance never urged the LTTE to give up ‘human shields.’ The TNA remained steadfastly committed to Velupillai Prabhakaran macabre cause until the very end.

Dr. Talpahewa’s book proved that Norway couldn’t absolve itself of responsibility in pursuing an agenda inimical to Sri Lanka. The author dealt with the significant LTTE presence in Norway. The LTTE was accused of using Norway for drug trafficking, extortion and the smuggling of Tamils into Norway. Dr. Talpahewa also delved into the relationship between Norwegian politicians and the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora. Norway’s backing for the LTTE’s cause cannot be different from the UK throwing a lifeline to the sinking LTTE in April 2009. Exposure of a classified US diplomatic cable originating from its London mission revealed the Labour Party going out of its way to appease the Diaspora due to domestic political reasons. Norwegians bent backwards to protest Prabhakaran’s interests. Another US diplomatic cable leaked by Wiki leaks revealed shocking Norwegian request to the US not to inform the Sri Lankan government of its decision to send a secret letter dated August 16, 2005.

The letter had been relayed to Prabakaran through the UK-based Balasingham. The then Norwegian Foreign Minister Petersen and Deputy FM Helgesen met Anton Balasingham, in London, on August 17, 2005, in the wake of the LTTE assassinating Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar..

Letter from Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Minister of Foreign Affairs


Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran


Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Oslo, 16 August 2005

Dear Mr. Prabhakaran

As I am sure you realize, the peace process is now in a critical situation. The killings and counter-killings over the last few months have been watched with mounting concern by Norway and the international community. Along with the continued recruitment of children to the LTTE, this has created distrust about the LTTE´s intentions as regards the peace process.

The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar has exacerbated the situation. It is not up to Norway to draw conclusions about the criminal investigations now under way in Colombo, or on any other judicial matter in relation with the killings. However, public perception both in Sri Lanka and internationally is that the LTTE is responsible. This public perception is a political reality. The LTTE needs to respond to this situation in a way that demonstrates continued commitment to the peace process.

I see it as my obligation to make clear to you the political choice now facing the LTTE. If the LTTE does not take a positive step forward at this critical juncture, the international reaction could be severe. Against this backdrop I would ask you urgently to consider the following steps:

 1. To accept the Norwegian Government´s invitation to participate in a review of the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement in order to find practical ways of ensuring full compliance by both parties.

2. To establish direct communications between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army in the east, in order to improve security.

3. To accept without delay the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission proposal for transportation of LTTE cadres.

4. To collaborate in a practical way with government initiatives to speed up reconstruction in the north and east. The LTTE´s continued commitment to the P-TOMS agreement is vital in this regard.

5. To take effective steps to halt killings and to cease the recruitment of underage combatants. I trust that you appreciate the gravity of the present situation and will take steps to demonstrate to the international community that the LTTE is committed to the peace process.

Yours sincerely,

Jan Petersen

End Text

Eelam War IV could have been averted if the international community took concrete measures against the LTTE in the wake of Kadirgamar assassination. Instead, they continued to mollycoddle terrorists, while warning the Sri Lankan government not to take military action against Prabhakaran. The LTTE continued to receive special treatment until the Sri Lankan military finished off the LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.